THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, defending himself against charges of Europe's worst genocide since the Holocaust, told judges Monday he was not the barbarian depicted by U.N. prosecutors, but was protecting his people against a fundamentalist Muslim plot.
During a four-hour opening defense statement at the U.N. war crimes tribunal, Karadzic barely referred to specific allegations of mass murder at Srebrenica, indiscriminate shelling of Sarajevo, the destruction of Bosnian Muslim and Croat villages or the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia.
But he took personal responsibility for Serb actions, as Yugoslavia dissolved and the region descended into a war in which some 100,000 people were killed, saying he was standing up for ethnic Serbs against Muslim Bosnians.
"I don't want to defend myself by saying that I wasn't important or that I didn't occupy an important post while I was serving my people. Nor will I shift the blame to someone else," he said. "I will defend that nation of ours and their cause, which is just and holy."
He claimed Bosnia's Serbs were under threat and physical attack by Muslims, led by former Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, who rejected power-sharing proposals and wanted an Islamic republic in Bosnia.
The Serbs "wanted to live with Muslims, but not under Muslims," he said.
The image of the Muslims as victims was untrue, he said. The prosecution "is trying to make me out to be a barbarian attacking a good and friendly neighbor."
The Muslims were the first to attack and their fighters "had blood up to their shoulders," he said. "Their conduct gave rise to our conduct."
Karadzic, 64, spoke forcefully, seldom glancing at notes, peering at the judges over the rim of his glasses or whipping them off to underscore a point. Seated alone at the defendant's table, he looked more like the confident politician who delivered wartime speeches and negotiated with peace envoys than the gaunt figure who was extradited to the U.N. court in 2008 after 13 years as a fugitive.
Munira Subasic, head of Mothers of Srebrenica movement, watched Monday's hearing from the back row of the public gallery, separated from Karadzic by a few yards and a bulletproof glass partition.
"Again after 15 years he did not show any remorse for what he did. He stayed the same war criminal as he was before," she said. "With his lies he betrayed his own Serbian people."
Karadzic is the most senior person to appear before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia since former Serb President Slobodan Milosevic, who died in his cell before a verdict was reached.
He faces two counts of genocide and nine other counts of murder, extermination, persecution, forced deportation and the seizing of 200 U.N. hostages. He faces possible life imprisonment if convicted.
Prosecutors say Karadzic orchestrated a campaign to destroy the Muslim and Croat communities in eastern Bosnia to create an ethnically pure Serbian state. The campaign included the 44-month siege of the capital of Sarajevo and the torture and murder of hundreds of prisoners in inhuman detention camps. That violence culminated in the massacre of some 8,000 Muslim males in one horrific week in July 1995 in the Srebrenica enclave, the worst bloodbath in Europe since World War II.
Karadzic boycotted the prosecution's opening statement last October, forcing a four-month suspension of his trial. On Monday he appealed last week's court ruling to proceed on Wednesday with the first prosecution witness, and is seeking another four-month recess to continue preparing his case.
Peter Robinson, a legal adviser who is helping Karadzic in his self-defense, said Karadzic will address specific charges in his 11-count indictment when he concludes his statement on Tuesday. But the legal team would continue pressing for an adjournment to prepare an adequate defense.
"He does not want a show trial. He wants a real trial," Robinson said outside the courtroom.
Karadzic portrayed himself as a conciliator who had been prepared to compromise on Serb ambitions to preserve the Yugoslav federation or to unite predominantly Bosnian Serb territory with Serbia.
The Serbs "were claiming their own territories, as you will see, and that is not a crime," he said. "It was never an intention, never any idea let alone a plan, to expel Muslims and Croats."
In a rare reference to a specific wartime incident, Karadzic denied Serb responsibility for the 1994 shelling of the Markale market in Sarajevo, which he called "an illusion and a trick." He showed video of an empty market that he claimed was shot before the shell landed, implying that the bodies were brought later.
Karadzic also blamed the news media, saying they misrepresenting refugee camps as concentration camps where non-Serbs were tortured and killed.
The trial was broadcast in the Bosnian Serb republic, where Karadzic is still regarded as a national hero, but not on the main channels in Sarajevo, the capital, which was celebrating Bosnia's independence day from Yugoslavia. News channels carried extensive reports from The Hague, however.
Amila Begic, a 44-year-old bank economist in Sarajevo, tuned in to the Serbian-language TV to watch. "I was listening to him and I saw that nothing changed. He is still living in his dream world," she said. She recalled that in the 1990s she would become upset listening to Karadzic. "How can someone lie this much? Now I see he is just a sick man."
Suada Maric, a Sarajevo lawyer, said seeing Karadzic, with his mane of white hair, "sent me back to those times – and I switched if off."
In Markale market, the anger against Karadzic was still palpable among people interviewed Monday shortly before Keradzic's courtroom appearance began.
Jasmin Hido, 49, who was a prisoner in one of the wartime camps, said Karadzic should get the death penalty. "I would send Bosnian kids with small hammers to keep hitting him over the head – so he has a slow and painful death. This is what he deserves," he said.
"I don't believe The Hague can punish him enough. They should send him back to us here in Sarajevo so we can hang him here in the middle of the city," said Muhamed Dizdar, a vendor who was injured by the Serb mortar shell.
The Karadzic trial is likely to be one of the last cases handled by the U.N. court. The Security Council has asked the tribunal to wind up its cases and appeals and close down, leaving future trials to national courts in the former Yugoslav republics.
The court, set up in 1993, has indicted 161 political and military officials, of which 40 cases are still continuing.
Two key figures are fugitives and could still be brought to trial in The Hague: Karadzic's former top general, Ratko Mladic, and Croatian Serb leader Goran Hadzic.
Associated Press Writers Aida Cerkez-Robinson and Radul Radovanovic in Sarajevo contributed to this report